Yearning to Break Free

Reviewed by Jodi Lundgren

Women’s fraught relationships with men and their conflicting desire for autonomy feature in both Carleigh Baker’s and Diane Bracuk’s debut collections of short stories. Bracuk’s Middle-Aged Boys and Girls highlights the psychological damage women suffer when they internalize the precepts of ageist sexism. In Bad Endings, Baker’s themes range more broadly from breakups to beekeeping to being a “half-blood,” but in several stories, women try to escape their male partners’ condescension, scorn, or physical violence.

A subset of Baker’s characters depends financially or emotionally on successful men: “I didn’t have to work or cook or clean or worry about anything,” explains one internally bankrupt narrator. Another tries to please her man “like a lame fifties housewife,” but when she admits defeat, the dated gender dynamics resolve themselves in distinctly contemporary terms: she swipes at profiles on Tinder in “a preemptive search for somebody new.” Equating abandonment with progress, Baker’s characters leave partners, roommates, and even a canoe tour in stories that often end in images of forward motion.

Non-traditional relationships, like that between two outpatients from a mental health facility, drive Baker’s most engaging work. Defined other than through marital status, these characters, whether neurotic or sassy, reveal more depth and self-awareness than the earlier group of “Westside ex-wives,” and they express themselves with verve. Standouts include “Last Call”—which depicts amusingly dysfunctional workers at a mental health call centre on the night before Valentine’s Day—and “Chins and Elbows,” narrated by Carmen, a recovering meth addict who refers to herself as a “half-blood city girl.” Carmen volunteers with a “salmon enhancement” project in which “humans cut eggs out of bellies, and squirt fish sperm into plastic bags.” One of the other participants, Lucky, an inmate described as a “First Nations woman,” self-consciously navigates and sometimes subverts the stereotypes that she is mired in. Lucky teases Carmen by calling her “Fishing Bear,” an epithet that horrifies the white program coordinator but that prompts a mixed response from Carmen: “Half of me is horrified too, the other half kinda wants to laugh.” In this scene and many others, Baker deftly captures nuanced and complex interactions. Whether in moments of genuine human connection or in quirky solo epiphanies—as in “Grey Water,” when a bushed Gulf Island resident gradually unseats the “powerful and lifelong misconception that [she is] not a part of nature”—Baker’s prose shines.

In Bracuk’s stories, the belief that self-worth erodes with age controls the inner lives of most female characters. A former television executive faces a typical loss of relevance: “Donna wasn’t a parent, or a producer, or a boss, or a wife, or any of those women’s roles that came with a purpose or a perspective”; others, she imagines, see her as an “aging, single woman, once considered glamorous, running out of options.” Struggling to adhere to socially prescribed ideals of femininity drains women of their vitality, yet in “Dirty Laundry,” the narrator—childless and married for twelve years—resists conforming at her peril: “in my mid-forties, I was tired of the articles on how to please men. . . . The need to be relentlessly alluring at all times had passed, and for me, it was a relief.” When her husband takes a pair of their litigious young tenant’s panties from the shared laundry room, however, her relief turns out to be premature, and she must weigh staying with him against starting over “as a single woman in her forties.”

Perhaps the saddest variation on this theme occurs in “Valentine,” in which the divorced protagonist (who also fears “starting to date again at an age well past her ‘best before’ date”) is alienated by her fourteen-year-old daughter’s budding sexuality. When the mother finds her daughter’s erotic selfies, she convinces herself that the girl is “scaling the peaks of sexual cunning” and has “judged her mother as not up to the challenge of keeping a man.” Offsetting this depiction of destructive maternal insecurity is the mother in “The Girl Next Door,” whose protective love shields her daughter from grave harm.

While Baker favours open endings, Bracuk embraces narrative closure, resolving predicaments or emphasizing epiphanies near the end of most stories. Though the closed endings often mirror women’s entrapment within social norms, redemption takes place in the aptly titled “New Ground,” in which the protagonist draws inspiration from a mentor at the dog park and, after “months of listening” to the woman’s “firm, even voice,” gains the strength to leave her abusive husband. Like Baker’s artistry, Bracuk’s narrative skill and linguistic control make for consistently well-crafted fiction.

This review “Yearning to Break Free” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 128-129.

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